A Hand to Hold in Asia

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-By John Boley

It is hardly a surprise that Australian businesses have become less insular and more eager to explore the wide world outside these shores, given the shrinking globe, booming Aussie dollar, desire to do more business and the growing reputation of Aussie goods and services for quality and (especially in engineering) expertise. As Mark Carroll, Executive Director of AustCham (the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce) said recently, “Businesses Down Under are under extreme pressure to move offshore.”

Yet a large proportion of them are ill-placed to succeed overseas. Like their counterparts in the US or Europe, they fail to appreciate the challenges of setting up shop in countries that may be culturally, politically and economically alien. Accordingly, many fall at the first hurdle. Some proceed with their gut-feel plan and either lose their shirt or experience disappointment as their investment in time and money does not produce the desired bottom-line results.

That’s not to say no-one succeeds – far from it. Nor that it is impossible to ‘go it alone’. But, says Heneage Mitchell (known throughout the region as ‘H’), himself a long-term resident in Asia, many companies large or small would jump at the chance to ‘hold someone’s hand’ as they step into the unknown.

H is the brains behind BAM Consultants. It’s a paradox: a newly-founded company with many years of experience behind it. It specialises in what it calls Regional Corporate Facilitation. “Over many years my work as the Managing Editor of a variety of Asian trade publications and as an organiser of trade shows has found me interviewing the corporate leaders of a variety of industries around the world,” H explains. “Invariably, whether the company was Indian, British, Australian or Chinese, the interview ended up getting turned around, with them quizzing me about how they could develop their business interests in various Asian countries. Some of these companies subsequently went on to develop regional expansion programmes effectively and profitably based on my suggestions and using the connections I had recommended.” In one case, he said, he almost accidentally saved a company a million dollars by creating a brand-name for them over a shared cup of coffee.

It became clear to H and his associates that the wealth of experience and contacts they have developed between them over many decades as entrepreneurial expatriates living and working in Asia is of huge value to corporations and businesses seeking to gain an edge in specific Asian markets, and this is the fundamental rationale underpinning BAM Consultants.

Failure to expand into new markets and capture new customers means losing out to more competitive and hungrier competitors. For businesses large and small, the challenge is typically perceived as ‘grow or die’. Investing and growing in Asia is seen as a logical way forward, either through introducing brands, products and services or by establishing production, manufacturing and service facilities. To ignore a ready market on your doorstep with four billion consumers is clearly not an option.

But the challenges can be daunting, even for large corporations. Your widget may outperform and outsell its competitors in Mackay or Manjimup but, says H, that doesn’t mean it will impress in Mumbai or Manila. Cultural, religious, linguistic, social, political, regulatory and environmental issues frequently conspire to thwart even the most seemingly appropriate and relevant forays into the region.

The most precious asset for any company looking to succeed in Asia is experienced, candid, transparent, informed, accurate and intelligent local knowledge, he believes. To develop the necessary qualifications in-house takes years of hands-on experience – gained in most cases by learning from mistake, hardly the most appealing or cost-effective option.

“Whether you are opening a new business or expanding an established company into a new territory, the pitfalls and road blocks are plentiful,” H explains. “Failure to appreciate the scale of the tasks involved, or to understand the cultural, legal, social, political and business dynamics, can quickly lead to disaster. BAM Consultants provides the highly experienced helping hand that all companies need, whatever their size, to navigate the perilous path to a sustainable start up in Asia. And if a company has already made a start, and finds the going tough, we can assess their needs and give them a hand too – totally confidentially.

“We can help identify the best locations to consider for offices, warehouses and factories; recommend suitable accommodation and schools for expatriate staff; provide reputable legal and accounting experts to clearly explain and assist in regulatory matters,” H said. “We will also define and identify cultural and social issues that might affect your business strategy and help you to develop ways to turn these to your advantage. Through our chain of associates and trusted consultants, we have the local knowledge, based on our combined decades of hands-on experience, that you need to ensure that your corporate expansion ends up on track, not on the rocks.”

BAM is based in Bangkok, with representation in Hong Kong, Singapore and Manila, and outreach in London and Melbourne. H moved to Singapore in 1979 while working in the offshore oil industry and has remained in the region ever since. “Working offshore for months on end, while financially rewarding, seriously curtailed my ability to develop other business interests,” he says. An entrepreneur at heart, he retains an interest in the oil and gas sector, arranging vessel charters in the South China Sea for oil exploration projects, but his interests have broadened to encompass a variety of business and career opportunities.

In the Philippines he ran a dive operation for tourists, experiencing the uncertainties of market fluctuations, politics and coups d’état. In Bangkok he was responsible for developing several influential regional and global industry publications. He counts Thailand as a good example of a country where investors need qualified transparent guidance and advice to develop a successful business model.

“It is a rich, vibrant culture, but with its language issues, cultural shibboleths, quixotic regulatory environment and unique corporate structures, it can be a daunting prospect for start-ups and brand launches. Having someone on the ground that understands the issues, the culture and the language, who can effectively communicate the issues and suggest the solutions is a no-brainer. This is where BAM, which provides a complete range of tailored services for international companies, comes into its own.”

H and his team have organised numerous successful international trade shows and conferences throughout Asia and beyond for the tobacco, tea and coffee industries and for logistics companies. H is also a sought-after speaker at trade events and an experienced moderator of panel discussions.

He says many potential entrants to this mysterious ‘Asian’ market are put off by the sheer scale of the task. This is compounded by the fact that the major consultancies fail to recognise the region’s inherent challenges. He cites a major global carmaker whose market share in ASEAN has been held back by poor marketing. “Using a ‘global’ ad campaign really designed for North America, they engaged equally ‘global’ consultants for PR and marketing in countries where the spend wasn’t big enough for the consultants to care. The client got fobbed off with juniors working on their case, who knew nothing about the locale and were simply ‘moving through’ on their way to something big back in New York.” If a huge corporate brand can get it wrong, he says, what chance for a more modest, yet ambitious, organisation?

Finding the right consultants is therefore the challenge a company must deal with before investing time and money launching itself into new markets that they may not understand so well – which pretty much encompasses most of Asia. There are very few outfits offering the kind of bespoke services required by companies looking to develop business in Asia, says H.

John Anderson, President of AustCham, told media last month that Australian companies too often overlook Thailand in a rush to invest in China. In a study the Chamber found Thailand is “ripe for Australian investment due to its strategic location, low labour costs, high consumer demand and solid infrastructure and would greatly benefit from improvements to the Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA).”

However, the study found foreign property ownership, bureaucracy, transparent business practices and work permits are obstacles facing Australian companies in Thailand – and elsewhere to a greater or lesser extent – and overcoming those hurdles, while certainly feasible, is not as easy as it may look from Albany or Alice Springs.

Brewing beer in Thailand; operating hotels in Vietnam; marketing controversial tobacco products in Indonesia; these and more have been case-studies of how it can go wrong without the right kind of hand-holding. Advising a global logistics network or a regional tourism organisation, or acting as a consultant to a ministry of the People’s Republic of China – BAM Consultants does not disclose its clients’ identities, but H gives some outline examples of where he and his associates have been of help. “It’s quite simple. If you are in or coming to Asia, are you 100 per cent confident you can ‘do it yourself’? If so, we will wish you well. If not, we can hold your hand in the most practical, cost-efficient and constructive manner.”

H Mitchell can be contacted at +66 85 811 3474

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